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HDR and Photoshop
How do I use HDR in Photoshop?
I get this question a lot! I have an answer for you, but it is not what you expect.
First, I can point you to the much more useful and practical free HDR Tutorial. You’ll see that Photoshop is part of the process, although I strongly recommend you use something else to do the “HDR” bit.
For HDR processing, I recommend getting something called Photomatix — use the code, TREYRATCLIFF, at checkout for 15% off. You can also get a free trial to play, but you’ll probably soon decide that you simply must have the full thing. Besides, it’s very inexpensive, especially compared to Photoshop! There are a few different Photomatix options at the website; personally, I use Photomatix Pro.
HDR in Photoshop Versus HDR in Photomatix
So I did an experiment to scientifically and artistically compare the two. To me, life is short and it doesn’t make sense to use anything but the best. Because I do use Photoshop quite a bit, I really do wish I could do everything in there. It would save me time and make my workflow easier. However, even with the latest version of Photoshop CC, I still can’t recommend using it for the HDR Processing bit.
Photomatix Pro 4.0 is the clear winner. Photoshop “Merge to HDR” is much better than earlier iterations of the software, but it has few other redeeming qualities.
- Faster (MUCH FASTER – see the chart below)
- Upgraded noise-reduction just for HDR
- Better ghosting control
- and more image control for higher quality images
Photoshop “Merge to HDR” Pro excels in:
- Having one integrated solution right inside Photoshop
- Easier to learn because there are a few less controls
Photoshop vs. Photomatix Pro Comparison
Note that this testing was done in CS5, although there have been no significant changes I can see since Photoshop CC has arrived.
|Item||Adobe Photoshop||Photomatix Pro|
|RAW Photos – Loading 7 Images (before Tonemapping)||1:54 (Test 1)
2:01 (Test 2)
|0:58 (Test 1)
0:56 (Test 2)
|RAW Photos – I make adjustments, then click to process||0:50 (Test 1)
0:52 (Test 2)
|0:08 (Test 1)
0:08 (Test 2)
|RAW Total Processing Time (Average)||2:48||1:05|
|JPG Photos – Loading 7 Images (before Tonemapping)||1:01* (Test 1)
0:57 (Test 2)
|0:41 (Test 1)
0:40 (Test 2)
|JPG Photos – Loading 7 Images (before Tonemapping)||0:27 (Test 1)
0:29 (Test 2)
|0:07 (Test 1)
0:08 (Test 2)
|JPG Total Processing Time (Average)||1:27||0:48|
* Photoshop Gives you a warning about not using JPG photos to make an HDR. You have to click “OK”, but I did not include that wait time in my timings.
Test Subjects and System:
I chose a 7-exposure session from a lake at sunset near Nikko, Japan. The exposures ranged from -3 to +3.
I have a speedy 17″ MacBook Pro. I bought it about 9 months ago — the specs are to the right.
In the Photoshop test, the only things running were Photoshop (in 64-bit mode), Bridge, and Skitch for taking screenshots. In the Photomatix Pro test, I kept those running + Photomatix Pro.
Now, the Photoshop Merge to HDR Pro option does not allow me to turn on and off Auto-Alignment, Cropping, or anything else. Normally, I turn that off in Photomatix because I use a tripod. To keep the tests fair, I turned on the Align Source Images, Cropping, and Reduce Noise in Photomatix Pro. That way, it was doing the same tasks as Photoshop. However, in my normal conditions, I don’t have those turned on, which makes Photomatix even faster.
Also, as you can see I processed with RAW and JPG files. I preach in my HDR Tutorial that using JPGs is just fine. I don’t see any difference in quality. But, I do notice that JPGs are much faster. This is important!
In these tests, Photomatix Pro 4.0 was much much faster. There’s almost no comparison.
Photomatix Pro processed the images in 1:05 — Photoshop did the same job in 2:48. It was more than twice as fast!
There are two intense “Computer Processing” periods. The first is when you load the images into the program. After this is done, the human takes over and adjusts the sliders. Then there is a second period of processing.
Speed – Loading the Images
Photoshop “Merge to HDR” was slow. Painfully slow! During the loading of the images, it give a few indications of why it is so slow. After a period of time it says “Aligning”. Then, after another bit, it says. “Transforming”. Then for another longer period, it says “Crop”. I did not touch the computer at all during this time… I kept the timer on my iPhone going to watch.
In these tests, the only thing I had running was Photoshop and Bridge. This is not typical. Note that I am usually running Google Chrome, Tweetdeck, Mail, and iTunes for music. So all the times you see in the chart are actually much higher, and the delta between Photoshop and Photomatix Pro grows even more.
My first broken test:
What I had running in the background for all the tests before the reboot:
- Google Chrome with about 6 tabs (gmail, websites, nothing too taxing)
- iTunes playing music
- Apple Mail & iCal
The first time I ran it with Merge to HDR Pro, it took 6:05 (six minutes and five seconds) to load. Just amazingly slow! Then, I thought, “Well, I do have it in 32-bit mode,” since I was also running some old plugins. So I tried it again in 64-bit mode. I shut down Photoshop and re-opened. Then I did the Merge to HDR Pro option through Bridge again. The second time it took 13:10. THIRTEEN MINUTES. I was just about to Force Quit the program — I was sure something was wrong! How can this be — in 64-bit mode? Isn’t it supposed to be faster?
So I decided to reboot and try again. I was worried that maybe there had been a memory leak or something had just gummed up the works. Because thirteen minutes just didn’t make sense! Now, I am using big images from a Nikon D3X. And these were RAW files, but that still seems like way too long…
After I rebooted, I loaded NO OTHER PROGRAMS expect for Photoshop, Bridge, and Skitch. I did not like doing this for the test, because this is not a “normal” environment for me. I usually have several things running. This time, it was much faster and clocked in at 1:54. So, after this, I decided to restart the whole test and have nothing else running to keep the results as clean as possible.
Speed – Processing the Images
After you make your slider changes, you can process them. There is a period of waiting whilst the image processes. Again, Photomatix Pro was not just a little faster, but way faster.
For the RAW files, Photoshop took an average of 8 seconds and Photoshop Merge to HDR Pro took a whopping 51 seconds (two tests at :50 and :52).
And remember… I wasn’t doing anything else on the computer… I wasn’t checking the mail or tweeting or anything… just watching the water boil…
Photo Quality and Control
I’ve been using previous versions of Photomatix for years, so I am familiar with the sliders. Because I am a private tester, Photomatix would not allow me to post screenshots of the new GUI. However, it is very similar to previous versions.
The new Photoshop “Merge to HDR” dialogs are very similar to that of Photomatix Pro. However, they do not have nearly as fine control. There are about 1/3 as many sliders, which is good and bad. It’s good in terms of simplicity, but it is bad it terms of flexibility.
I find that there are so many different sorts of HDR shooting conditions. The more sliders you have to adjust one part of a photo for one condition and another for a different condition — the better. I’ve processed a bunch of images with both now, and I prefer Photomatix Pro. I get much more fine-grained control.
More importantly, I feel like I get more “pop” with the Photomatix Pro controls. It’s tough to explain… what do you think? What’s your experience with these tools so far?
The two above images are from Photomatix Pro 4.0 (left) and Photoshop Merge to HDR (right). Although it is probably hard to tell at this resolution, I believe the Photomatix Pro one has finer control. Both tools allow you to move the sliders around until you are happy with the image… so there is not really a one-to-one comparison possible here… Also, I did not show the new GUI for Photomatix Pro 4.0 at the request of the developer.
Better Ghosting Control
I remember when Merge to HDR Pro was announced that it had this cool feature for repairing ghosts. Ghosts are those nasty bits where part of an image is moving around in the various frames. A dog running across the bottom of the frame would be a good example.
Well, Photomatix Pro 1-ups Photoshop! It allows you to control various ghosts around the frame at the same time! Basically, there is an intermediate step where you can drag the mouse around one area and select a new single “source” image for that area, and then do it again for another section. For example, you may want to pick the dog from one exposure and the blowing tree from another. It’s great flexibility and very smart.
Noise Reduction for HDR
Photoshop did make some very nice changes with Noise Reduction, but that is part of the RAW import process. Since the Merge to HDR Pro option goes around that, you don’t get any of the good Noise Reduction for HDR images inside Photoshop.
Photomatix Pro 4.0 has a newer, more robust way to reduce noise. It even allows you to adjust the noise in the “input” images before they even begin the processing period. Smart.
The image there to the right was taken from a single RAW. As most of you HDR veterans know, noise at night is a big problem. The new Noise Reduction in Photomatix (which works even for a single RAW photo) really saved me a lot of time.
You can click on the image there to go see the full size on SmugMug. You’ll notice little white bits… they almost look like stars that I drew in, but they are falling sparkles from previous explosions
HDR Toning – Are you kidding me?
I was also intrigued by another little feature in Photoshop that all the videos were raving about. It is called “HDR Toning…” and it allows you to take your image inside Photoshop and give it an “HDR Look”. Cool, I thought! Well, I got in there to try it, and it told me that I had to Flatten the entire image first! That means, basically, that you have to take all of your layers and make them one. This is a deal-killer for me, since I like to have several layers open while I am working on an image.
Worse, it makes no sense! Most of the other Photoshop filters and controls work on a single layer without requiring the entire thing to be flattened. What’s up Adobe? You gotta fix that up… it’s sloppy.
The Final Photo – The Lake at Nikko
This place was Cold with a capital C, as you can plainly see.
And worse, I had forgotten my special little gloves with the flip-up fingertips. So I was goin’ finger-commando while trying to line up this shot. The wind was pretty stiff in my face. The wind always seems to be against you, eh? I think I just never notice it when it comes from any other angle.
By the way, there is only one place that is convenient to quickly warm up your fingers.
There is an older, historic part of Nikko that is about a 30 minute drive away. The drive is practically straight up a mountain, through a series of switchbacks. During the entire time up the mountain, I was surrounded by clouds. I thought it would be quite miserable at the top. But once I poked out, everything was free and clear. I was between cloud layers, exactly where this chilly lake sat at sunset.